Marks of the Church

March 2, 2008

A current conversation over at Jay Guin’s blog sparked my interest in the “marks of the church.”  On the surface, the concept has some unpleasant connotations for someone who longs for the visible unity of the Lord’s church.  Proclaiming a list of “marks of the church” seems to move in the other direction, distinguishing one church from all the others.  It says “We are the true church.  The others are not.”  

Apparently the concept comes originally from the Catholic church.  In the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, the phrase “[We believe]… in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”  was added to the Nicene Creed.  These four adjectives became known as the “Four Marks of the Church.” The four marks are associated not only with the Catholic church, but also appear in creeds of many Protestant denominations.

A quick Google search brings back interesting results on the subject.   In the early 1900’s, in a book titled “Trail of Blood”, J. H. Carroll identified eleven marks of the (Baptist) church:

1. Its Head and Founder–CHRIST. He is the law-giver; the Church is only the executive. (Matt. 16:18; Col. 1:18) 

2. Its only rule of faith and practice–THE BIBLE. (II Tim. 3:15-17) 

3. Its name–“CHURCH,” “CHURCHES.” (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 22:16) 

4. Its polity–CONGREGATIONAL–all members equal. (Matt. 20:24-28; Matt. 23:5-12) 

5. Its members–only saved people. (Eph. 2:21; I Peter 2:5) 

6. Its ordinances–BELIEVERS’ BAPTISM, FOLLOWED BY THE LORD’S SUPPER. (Matt. 28:19-20) 

7. Its officers–PASTORS AND DEACONS. (I Tim. 3:1-16) 

8. Its work–getting folks saved, baptizing them (with a baptism that meets all the requirements of God’s Word), teaching them (“to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”). (Matt. 28:16-20) 

9. Its financial plan–“Even so (TITHES and OFFERINGS) hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel,” (I Cor. 9:14) 

10. Its weapons of warfare–spiritual, not carnal. (II Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:10-20) 

11. Its independence–separation of Church and State. (Matt. 22:21)

In more recent times, defining the marks of the true church seems to have become something of a hobby among a few groups.  Churches of Christ have taken our turn at this hobby.  Searching Google for  “marks of the New Testament Church” helps to narrow down to the the efforts of churches of Christ to define these marks.  A few examples of these efforts  (ppt) suffice  to show what they are trying to accomplish.  These lists emphasize the features that make churches of Christ unique.  They seem designed to prove that churches of Christ are the only true churches.  While the principles in these lists may be correct, it cannot be shown from the scriptures that a church missing one of these characteristics is therefore not a true church.  (For example, a church with a name not found in scripture is not for that reason a false church.)

Biblically, there was only one church, with local congregations in many places.  A person who became a Christian automatically became a member of the church and began to assemble together with the other Christians in their location.  Similarly today,  any assembly of Christians is the church in that location.  So the true mark of a church is that it is composed of Christians.  Any assembly of true Christians is a true church of Christ.

There are many topics and issues on which many churches differ.  Some of these differences are quite significant.  The same was true in the first century.  Based on the information we have from the scriptures, perhaps the Corinthian church was farthest from sound doctrine and practice in its day.  That congregation was divided into factions; they condoned sexual immorality; they were taking one another to court; they were playing with idolatry;  they were abandoning the gender roles they had been taught; they were corrupting the Lord’s supper; they had an unhealthy attitude toward spiritual gifts; and some of them even denied the resurrection of the dead.  Yet Paul did not hestiate to call them a church of God.   They were sanctified by God

The only definitive marks that distinguish a true church from a false one is whether or not its members are Christians.   Whatever else may be wrong with them, they are an assembly of people saved by the blood of Christ.  The other things matter, sometimes profoundly.  But if the members are Christians, the blood of Christ continually cleanses them.  The blood of Christ on each member is the only defining mark of the true church. 


  1. Wonderful points. Thank you for all the hard work you are doing to inform the Kingdom!

  2. The Catholic Church validly claims succession from the Apostles. Church of the apostles was holy. There is one body and one spirit. The marks are listed by holy, catholic and apostolic.=======================malcaJust use the keyword “Christian Drug Rehab” as the link in the signature Christian Drug Rehab

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